Giftedness and Anxiety: Part 1

By Erin Peace, LCSW, RPT: ACE Academy School Counselor

September 28, 2021

What is anxiety?

The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “ an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Although most people will experience anxiety symptoms at some points in their lives, gifted students have a higher likelihood of experiencing anxiety symptoms than the average population.

Giftedness and Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal (albeit unpleasant) part of the human experience, and it can serve as either adaptive or maladaptive depending on its severity or frequency. For example, anxiety can motivate us to complete tasks and can warn us of impending danger. In these instances, anxiety can serve as a protective factor when we’re focusing on things we can control.

Anxiety and Avoidance

On the other end of the spectrum, anxiety can also feel debilitating when we’re ruminating on things we can’t control or acting on our cognitive distortions. These actions can often show up as avoidance of an experience that triggers our anxiety, as demonstrated by the following example:

Although we can’t control when anxiety shows up, we can provide our students with tools to respond to their thoughts and body sensations. We can also normalize the experience of anxiety with our students by reminding them that anxiety is an automatic response from our brains attempting to keep us safe; there is nothing wrong with us experiencing anxious thoughts and feelings.

Strategy 1: Managing the Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Students often benefit from three ways to manage the physical sensations of anxiety:

  1. Controlled, deep breathing (as opposed to shallow breathing)

  2. Progressive muscle relaxation

  3. Reducing sugar and caffeine intake

Controlled, Deep Breathing

The following breathing strategy is provided by the NHS:

  1. Start by noticing your breathing. Is it fast or slow? Deep or shallow? Just tune in to how you are breathing in this moment.

  2. Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your stomach and chest to gently swell. You will know you are breathing deeply if both hands gently rise.There will be less movement in the hand on the chest.

  3. Let each breath follow naturally. When the in breath has ended let the out breath happen when it is ready. Exhale slowly and gently. It can be helpful to imagine letting go of any anxieties you have with each out breath. Imagine the worries dissolving or floating away. As you breathe in imagine a sense of health and well-being filling your lungs and stomach, and then your whole body.

  4. Once you have got used to the rhythm of your breathing, try to keep your attention on the physical experience of the in and out breath. If you find your mind wanders and / or you start to feel anxious, gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Carry on practicing your controlled breathing for the desired amount of time.

As a registered play therapist (RPT), I also have a variety of tools for children that incorporate creativity, imagery, and fun into breathing exercises. Please contact me if you would like some other ideas on how to incorporate teaching breathwork to your student, especially if they are young children.

In Part 2 of this blog series on giftedness and anxiety, we will explore two more skills that can help students manage the physical sensations of anxiety: Progressive muscle relaxation and managing sugar and caffeine intake.